Digital Humanities

Definition of Digital Humanities

Digital Humanities can be described as “the applications of computational technology and methods to humanities problems”, this definition has quickly become obsolete and needs to be updated by scholars and practitioners. If this does not happen, our future potential will be unnecessarily limited. The digital and the humanities focus on putting people in a better position to understanding the unknown, their difficult disciplines or topics. 

When we ask ourselves the question “What is/are the digital humanities?”, one could argue that digital humanities are not recognised as a field, but as a form of interpretation. Elijah Meeks a digital humanities specialist, tries to figure out what the digital humanities means to people. He gives multiple answers about how people are defining digital humanities and how over the past five, ten or even fifteen years people have been arguing about this question. Some of his definitions include that the digital humanities are “bringing computational methods to bear on traditional humanities scholarships” where we are using applications such as GIS, where we are using spatial analysis, where we use network analysis, text analysis, and natural language processing.

An interesting definition of what is/are the digital humanities is that we are “taking tools built by warmongers, oil companies, spy agencies & investment bankers and using them to study literature, philosophy, history, culture and the classics”. 

In its simplistic definition Digital Humanities could be described as humanities computing. It involves investigation, analysis and presentation of information from any humanities topic /subject and communicates the findings of the research or topic in electronic form. It is effectively the overlap or the intersection of computing and the humanities disciplines. It is methodological by nature and interdisciplinary in scope.

Computational methods are defined as “any type of calculation that includes both arithmetical and non-arithmetical steps and follows a well-defined model”. The digital humanities use computational methods in the exploration of traditional humanities scholarship. Meeks explains that the digital humanities does not revolve around computational methods but is an approach that resembles science that isn’t science but imitating it. 

The digital humanities resemble sciences from a background, the humanities are built upon the basis of criticism. Meeks continues by addressing that “scientists are more focused on progression, building better things, understanding things better so you can build things again”. This is different in the humanities, we are most focused on the critiques and engagement with something while going back and forth. The digital humanities branches into many fields and areas, some main fields are computational methods, fan culture, digital objects and critical inquiries.

The Origins of Digital Humanities

The Digital Humanities began in 1949 when Fr Roberto Busa, an Italian Jesuit priest,  walks into a CEO’s office to meet with Thomas J. Watson. Fr Busa had an idea for a project that was called “Index Thomisticus” that would create a word index of  Saint Thomas’ Aquinas work. Busa wanted to make his 220 works searchable to people. He fell into a problem. How could he group all of the lemmas together of words to their base forms? Lemmatisation is the process of grouping together their base forms, using algorithms to identify the correct meanings, so they can be analysed as a single item. Unlike stemming which reduces words to their base form,  lemma division depends on correctly identifying the intended part of speech and meaning of a word in a sentence as well as within the larger content surrounding that sentence. Stemming reduces precision depending on the context for some systems. 

Fr Busa overcame this problem by using punch cards. He used roughly around thirteen million cards when indexing Aquinas works. He approached IBM and said, “there has to be a better way to use computers to do this better”. In 1980, Busa published his 56 volume print edition, a CD-ROM version in 1989, and in 2005 a Web-based version. This in its simplistic form explains what digital humanities are about. 

Susan Hockey, a professor of library and information studies at University College London, has written about the history of digital humanities. She writes about the Index Thomisticus project that was undertaken by Fr Busa as being part of Computer Science or the Humanities, “His team attempted to write some computer software to deal with [ listing words that are listed under their dictionary heading, and not under their simple form ]”. Hockey also writes about how Fr Busa has continued to have a major influence on humanities computing, and how his imagination and vision has reached beyond the horizon of many current generations. 

There were many results from the Index Thomisticus project. It was the first major example of a Humanities scholar, recognising the value of computer-assisted approaches to analysis, it was the first example of such ideas like “Crowd-Sourcing” and “Group-Sourcing” in Humanities scholarship, and it also showed that the digital humanities didn’t begin with distant readings, instead it started with corpora creation and sharing.

In the 1960s, people were getting obsessed with concordances, even in the human economy. Concordance is defined as “making an alphabetical list of words that are present in a text or many texts where citations of the passages are concerned”. Moving forwards in concordances, we see the development and progressions emerge.  Augustus de Morgan in 1851, proposed the idea of investigating the authorship of vocabulary in a quantitative study. He talks about a “counting machine” that can count words where there would have been too much intensive work without using computers. In 1963, Andrew Morton, a Scottish clergyman, published an article in a newspaper in Britain stating that a computer had shown that St Paul has only written four of his epistles. 

We wouldn’t have known this information if it wasn’t for the use of technology. But with new methods, brings limitations to concordance. In the 1960’s, there was a lot of heavy labour work in transferring punch cards and paper cards to machines readable formats. There can be physical limitations such as how we organise and move 13,000,000 punch cards? How reliable were the clients doing the intensive labour? What would happen if there was an error in any of these punch cards? 

History of Digital Humanities

During the 1990s, at the beginning of the Internet Era, there was a significant shift in the Digital Humanities. The first digital humanitarians in Ireland began in 1957 when the first computers were installed for the use in processing information for commercial and scientific purposes. The first programmable computer, named the BTM HEC 1201, was bought in 1957. It was bought by Comhlucht Siúicre Éireann Teo, the Irish sugar company. The sole purpose of the computer was to calculate how much money the company owed to their suppliers. 

Soon after the first computers that were installed, Irish colleges began purchasing IBM 1620s in the 1960s. Universities scattered around Ireland believed that computers could be used to carrying out operations, some examples include carrying out automatic routine tasks, storing information of students details and distributing accurate payrolls for employees. Computers have made an immense impact on scholars, initially in the fields of sciences and engineering and later in humanities.

 In the 1970s, Peter Flynn a graduate from the London College of Printing was first interested in computers and seeing their potential for typesetting and publishing. Several years after working in a private enterprise, building up his technical expertise in networking technologies, Flynn moved to work at UCC in 1984. 

Ó Corráin a professor in the Department of History at UCC, proposed the idea of building a research database that would consist of early Irish text that would be called the “Thesaurus Linguarum Hiberniae”. Similarly around the same time, the Text Encoding Initiative (TEI), a nonprofit membership organisation that works in the development and maintenance of a standard for guidelines on specifying encoding methods for representing texts in a digital format.

The development of a central idea and sustained argument – What is/are the Digital Humanities ?

When exploring the origins and history of Digital Humanities, we get a better understanding of what is meant by the digital humanities. From Fr Busa’s work on helping to archive, digitise and search Aquinas work through the use of Lemmatisation and Computational Methods, we have Google helping people to learn languages with their Google translate service. And it is not just about algorithms, people help Google translate by contributing their own suggestions to improve their translation algorithms. Google translate is a collaborative effort between the experts and the software giant. People are encouraged to improve the translation on the Google website.

This idea of collaboration is also present within my geography assignments where we work on supporting open street mapping project or using ArcGIS for profile the urban landscape. So what differentiates the digital humanities from a standard computer science course is perhaps its focus on the human both in terms of collaboration and in terms of the focus of Digital Humanities projects. We won’t be asked to develop a python – compiler but we may be asked to work together to better understand how social media is impacting our ability to read or write long documents.  For me, Digital Humanities is about using technology in a collaborative environment to solve real world problems or improve the world.

What does it mean to study Digital Humanities?

While studying the humanities, you are introduced to many digital tools and methodologies. These new tools and methods can be used to as a means of archiving digital copies by using traditional methods, such as computation to order and organise digital archives. 

The question is “Can the digital humanities be made up of everything and anything?” Alan Liu, a renowned professor part of the English Department of the University of California, designed a map of what are the building blocks of the Digital Humanities. There are five distinct disciplines, Media Studies, Literary Studies, Media Arts, Design, and History.  Digital Humanities in a way has its own history, bibliography, programs, journals, and critics. 

Stephen Ramsey, from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln believes that having a blog doesn’t mean that you can be recognised as a digital humanist. Ramsey continues by saying that there is a blindspot beyond having a blog. He questions if you “have to know how to code?” and how the humanities “have to be about text?” Ramsey argues that “yes” you do have to know how to code in the digital humanities. For me building things is what makes up the digital humanities, building digital tools and methodologies. Without building new tools and methods, the amount of analysis that we can use becomes limited, it is vital that we keep building and designing new digital tools and methods so we can advance more in our disciplines.  

There are many theories and perspectives of the digital humanities. A relevant source that I had found was the “Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship” written by Johanna Drucker. She writes about how we need to move our “focus towards the study of humanistics” and to move away from the “effects of technology”. In Drucker’s opening paragraph, she writes that the digital humanities main values are predominantly  the “creation, migration, or preservation of cultural materials (McGann)”. McGann and Ramsey both think alike believing that the digital humanities is about building things and not just about text. Drucker continues by addressing how the digital humanities are using new platforms and networked environments when moving into the digital age. 

So what is next for the digital humanities? Drucker talks about how the humanities have used digital work over many decades and questions if the humanities are contributing to anything different or are we just “increasing our activities” that is our fundamental problem. She argues the point – have the “humanities had any impact on the digital environment?”. In my opinion, I believe that yes we do have an impact on the digital environment. 

I believe the humanities are all about creating things as Ramsey explains, but your ideas can’t be limited. If you give an artist an empty canvas and ask him to paint something new that nobody has created before, is the artist’s  creativity limited because many other paintings have been imagined by other artists? What effect does this have on what the artist will create? In other words, are the humanities limited when designing new digital tools or will there be no limit to creating new digital tools? 


There is no clear simple definition of the term Digital Humanity. We gain a better understanding of the concept of Digital Humanities from its history and from the scholarly work of people like Drucker, Meeks, Hockey, Fitzpatrick and Schnapp. There are some common disciplines described in their work. We see that Digital Humanities means using technology to solve humanity problems. We also see that collaboration and sharing is a key part of Digital Humanities. Digital Humanities is also evolving and new tools and new ways of collaboration will be required as we take the next step  in the “creation, migration, or preservation of cultural materials” (Drucker).


Meeks, E., (2014) An introduction to Digital Humanities – Bay Area DH

Schnapp, J., (2014) Digital Humanities

University of Oxford, (2014) The Digital Humanities in Oxford University

Drucker, J., (2012) Debates in the Digital Humanities

Drucker, J., (2012) Humanistic Theory and Digital Scholarship

The Audiopedia, (2017) What is Lemmatisation?

Hockey, S., (2008) A Companion to Digital Humanities

Columbia University, (2011) Defining the Digital Humanities

Fitzpatrick, K., (2012) The Humanities, Done Digitally